Footballers may be asked to sign disclaimers in the future to prevent them suing over dementia and other brain injuries, the former head of the Scottish Football Association has said.
Gordon Smith also repeated calls for children under the age of 12 to be banned from heading footballs until more research into a link with dementia is carried out. He was speaking after the family of the former Celtic captain Billy McNeill revealed that he was suffering from dementia and had lost the ability to speak.
The families of two players who were part of Kilmarnock FC’s 1965 title-winning side have also claimed that they and other team-mates died from degenerative brain-related conditions.
Research has shown a possible link between repeatedly heading a football and the development of brain injuries which could lead to dementia in later life. However, Mr Smith’s suggestion that disclaimers could prevent the SFA and football clubs being sued by players has been dismissed by legal experts.
Mr Smith, SFA chief executive between 2007 and 2010, told the BBC: “I think there might be a scenario where eventually players would have to sign some sort of form that says they are not going to take action at a later date. A disclaimer form [saying] that if you are playing football then heading is part of the game, you accept that and you get on with it. I think that might be the way ahead because we don’t want to see the game change. Heading is a tremendous part of the game and I don’t want it taken out of football.”
Lawyers believe that introducing such a disclaimer would require a change in employment law. David Cabrelli, senior lecturer in commercial law at University of Edinburgh Law School, said: “There is legislation saying any disclaimers which prevent an individual from claiming for damages or compensation for personal injury, whether physical or psychiatric, are basically null and void.”
However, he added that players may struggle to prove a direct causal link between their footballing careers and the onset of dementia in court.
The McNeill family said they could not link the player’s condition to the sport but wanted more research, as do relatives of the Kilmarnock footballers.
Kilmarnock won the Scottish League Championship with a 2-0 victory over Hearts. The second goal, a header, was scored by Davie Sneddon. The player’s son, also David Sneddon, said he knew of five members of that team who went on to develop Parkinson’s disease, dementia or both. That includes his 80-year-old father, who had vascular dementia diagnosed about five years ago.
“We can see every day that his memory is getting really, really bad,” he said. “Dad didn’t head the ball much during the game but during training they headed the ball a lot.”
Frank Beattie, who was the centre half, had Parkinson’s diagnosed aged 65, and dementia a few years later. He died in 2009, aged 76, and his widow, Betty, said she was convinced that his condition was linked to football. “When he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, the doctor said right from the beginning the Parkinson’s was due to heading the ball,” she told BBC Scotland.